The Last Senate Expulsion: 1862 (With Some Close Calls Since)

With the news that the Senate Ethics Committee would likely have recommended the expulsion of former Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who resigned last week, it’s worth asking the question: When was the last time a senator was actually expelled?

The last House expulsion was in 2002, with the Senate expelling Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) after he was convicted on corruption charges, but the last Senate expulsion was much further back. As the Senate historian’s office told TPM, the last time a Senator was expelled was in 1862, when Sen. Jesse Bright (D-IN) was expelled for supporting the Confederacy. Indeed, a total of 15 senators were expelled for that reason in the early years of the Civil War, with Bright being the last — and also the only one from a non-Confederate and non-border state.

On other rare occasions, as in the case of Ensign, senators who faced likely expulsion would instead resign before such a vote would be taken. In recent history, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) resigned in 1995 after the the Ethics Committee recommended expulsion following an investigation into alleged sexual abuse of female former staffers. In 1982, Sen. Harrison Williams (D-NJ) resigned after he had been convicted of bribery the previous year, as a result of an FBI sting, and efforts to appeal the verdict had failed.

Here’s what got Bright expelled, courtesy of the Senate’s history web site:

Shortly after the inglorious rout of Union troops at the first Battle of Bull Run, Thomas Lincoln, a Texas arms merchant, was captured by federal forces as he attempted to cross into Confederate territory. Lincoln’s captors found among his possessions the following letter, dated March 1, 1861, from Jesse Bright to “His Excellency Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States”:

My dear Sir:
Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend, Thomas B. Lincoln of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire-arms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.

Bright admitted that he wrote the letter, but was simply honoring gentlemanly custom by introducing his former law client Thomas B. Lincoln to his former Senate colleague Jefferson Davis, and addressing Davis by the title that he claimed for himself at the time.

Bright was expelled by a vote of 32-14.

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